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Outbreak of bird deaths concerns officials in Marshalls

MAJURO — The mass death of chickens and ducks on a small island next to the U.S. Army’s missile testing range in the Marshall Islands is perplexing health and environment officials.

The sudden and unexplained deaths of nearly 100 chickens on Enibooj Island — which has a population of under 200 people living a largely subsistence lifestyle — sparked an investigation earlier this week by Ministry of Health and Marshall Islands Environmental Protection Authority officials.

“More than 85 chickens and ducks were found dead and buried on the island of Enibooj from July 1 to 18,” reported Ebeye Hospital’s Dr. Tom Jack and EPA’s Ebeye Chief Environmental Specialist Odrikawa Jatios on Wednesday after touring the island that U.S. cartographers refer to as Carlson. Samples of the dead bird carcasses were taken for laboratory testing.

Kwajalein Senator Tony deBrum sought an investigation of the apparent outbreak of disease among fowls on the island late last week, saying “dead chickens in a small community should be a matter of emergency health concerns.”

The island is located about three miles away from the headquarters island of the Reagan Test Site, a major missile testing facility operated by the U.S. Army.

“No person was sick during this period of time and no other animals were sick besides chickens and ducks,” said Jack and Jatios. “It is not clear what caused the death of the chickens on Enibooj.”

The problem appears to have subsided, they said.

They have asked the Marshall Islands Quarantine Department and the Army’s Animal Hospital Laboratory to assess what caused the outbreak.

People on the island said the unknown sickness hit the fowls without warning earlier this month. The birds’ eyelids swell up, some flipped upside down with legs in the air and died, while others died of dehydration even though water was available for the animals.

Mostly young chickens — from two months to a year old — died in the outbreak.

Enibooj islanders say no commercial feed was used for the chickens and no pesticides are in use on the island. “All interviewees said other animals like pigs and dogs are drinking from the same water source but were never sick (and didn’t) die,” Jatios said.

Dr. Jack advised residents not to eat island chickens until further notice and showed how to properly dispose of them. He also advised against sending chickens to Ebeye, the urban center on Kwajalein Atoll that has a population of about 12,000.

The two investigators said they witnessed one chicken in the process of dying from the mystery illness while on the island. “The chicken’s eyelids were swelling and it couldn’t walk,” the report said. “The chicken will sit for almost two days and then it dies.”

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